On July 10th I delivered the opening keynote at the online conference organised by the World Association of Sign Language Interpreters. The theme of the conference was What have we learnt from 2020-2021.
This is not about strategies. But it can be, if we want to. This is about what is happening now in the world. Not the biological virus, the other virus: racism and the protests against that virus #BlackLivesMatter.
Following the COVID-19 pandemic, lockdown, huge changes in our daily lives -social and professional-, insecurities, being unable to see our family, travel and enjoy the little things of life, we are facing something much bigger. We are facing ourselves. We are facing our history. We are facing what we thought we knew, what we know, what we wish we did not have to know and what we should know. All of us have been in situations where we did not speak up when discrimination happened, when racist remarks were being made, when sexist “jokes” (why do we call them jokes?) were laughed away. I do not want to talk about the personal experiences. That is a journey each of us has to undertake in our own time and at our own pace. I do want to talk about the lack of diversity in our profession: signed language interpreting.
When we talk about signed language interpreting, we almost immediately think about multiculturalism, multilingualism. However, we tend to limit our conversations, education and knowledge to what this means on to the bicultural axis of deaf culture & hearing culture (whatever those entail) and to the bilingual/bimodal concepts of spoken and signed languages.
Where however are the conversations about the diversity, multicultural knowledge, religious variation we see in society? And I am not only talking about that variety in the deaf communities. What about the hearing people we work with? What about our colleagues? I think that is the sore spot. Where are our interpreter colleagues of colour? Where in Western countries are the Black signed language interpreters, the Asian interpreters, the signed language interpreters from a Muslim background, the Jewish signed language interpreters? When I look at my region in Belgium, Flanders, the society is multicultural, but the Flemish Sign Language (VGT) interpreting community is white and female. Like me. There is no representation of the diverse communities we work with. So how can we expect to serve them adequately?
I have started to educate myself. It’s something each of us can do: learn, start to understand and do better. At the moment I am reading about Black American Sign Language – English interpreters (free download) and I follow the conversations of Black deaf people, educators, researchers, comedians and Black signed language interpreters on Twitter and Instagram. I take in the systemic issues they point to, such as access to education, access to signed language interpreting programmes, ignorance of multicultural topics in those programmes, access to professional associations, underrepresentation in those organisations, racism by service users, racism by colleagues, being “type casted” for only “black” jobs, having to deal with prejudice from educators, colleagues and clients. And I ask myself how can I do better? How can we do better?
I believe signed language interpreting programmes need to have a closer look at the society signed language interpreters work in, the people they work with and the diversity in that society which lacks in the training programmes, the staff and the students.
I believe we need to step away from our binary thinking when it comes to culture and bring the full-scaled multicultural conversation into our profession.
I believe we need to talk about representation of service users through interpreters and what it means if the vast majority of the interpreters are white and female, while the service users are not.
I believe we need to see, acknowledge and accept that we have long ignored that power imbalances in our profession do not only cut along the deaf – hearing distinction. A lot of “voices” are not being heard.
I believe we can change this. And so maybe this can be about strategies at last.
Each of us can start a conversation:
if we are a signed language interpreter, we could start talking about the lack of diversity in our profession with colleagues and service users
if we are a member of a professional signed language interpreter association we could strive for more diversity amongst board members
if we are signed language interpreter educators we could start actively recruiting staff from minoritised groups, look for collaborations with spoken language interpreting programmes that address multicultural realities of interpreting, review the current curricula and actively recruit students from underrepresented groups
if we are signed language interpreting researchers we can make diversity in our field more visible by addressing these topics and putting them on the research agenda